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Trump's debate performance was too little, too late

Trump's debate performance was too little, too late
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Well, that was an improvement.

President Trump’s challenge last night was to act more presidential – a lot more presidential – than in the first debate. His advisers did not want the president to repeat a performance that had frightened children. More policy, lose the interruptions and dont go too overboard on Hunter Biden.  

Former Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenBiden to nominate Linda Thomas-Greenfield for UN ambassador: reports Scranton dedicates 'Joe Biden Way' to honor president-elect Kasich: Republicans 'either in complete lockstep' or 'afraid' of Trump MORE’s challenge was to at least match his performance in the first debate, minus the Trump is a “clown” insults. Above all, he had to stay cool and focused, even when Trump inevitably unleashed on his son. No mistakes, especially any that would give Trump “Sleepy Joe” ammunition. 

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Both did what they had to do, which is why it was not the night that Trump needed. Trump was more focused and disciplined than perhaps anyone expected, and he even had nice things to say about the moderator, Kristen Welker of NBC News, albeit after attacking her all week. He was especially effective in characterizing Biden as a Washington insider — “He was there for 47 years. He didn’t do it” (as though as president Trump isn’t the ultimate Washington insider).  

One suspects, though, that while Trump’s advisers were high-fiving during the debate about their candidate’s “normal” (for him) behavior, they were also playing the “if only” game, as in, “if only he had given that performance at the first debate on September 29.” By last night it was just 11 days to the election, 47 million people had already voted and Trump was so down in the polls that he could not afford a draw and needed to land real blows. Biden was on the defensive at times, particularly regarding the 1994 crime bill, but Trump didn’t even put him against the ropes.  

Some of his attacks, such as on Hunter Biden, got bogged down in minutiae that Rudy GiulianiRudy GiulianiGiuliani distances Trump campaign from attorney Sidney Powell Team Trump offering 'fire hose' of conspiracy Kool-Aid for supporters Trump campaign appeals dismissal of Pennsylvania election challenge MORE understands but likely were lost on the viewers. And, of course, there were so many Trumpian falsehoods and exaggerations that, since the debate was held in Nashville, one expected to hear an overworked fact-checker belting out, “You can’t hide your lying eyes,” from the song “Lyin’ Eyes” by The Eagles.       

Biden may have been as sharp and concise, especially in his counterpunches, as he has been since entering the race last year (preparation matters). And, with the exception of the last few minutes, his energy level and passion matched or exceeded Trump’s. Trump wanted to run against “Sleepy Joe” but instead was often on his heels against a surprisingly nimble opponent on a host of issues, from the coronavirus and health care to his failure to release his tax returns. Trump tried running against Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiUS economy hurtles toward 'COVID cliff' with programs set to expire Democrats gear up for last oversight showdown with Trump Divided citizenry and government — a call to action for common ground MORE, Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaCan Biden vanquish Democrats' old, debilitating ghosts? How space exploration will help to address climate change Democrats' squabbling vindicates Biden non-campaign MORE, AOC, Bernie SandersBernie SandersDemocrats brush off calls for Biden to play hardball on Cabinet picks What's behind the divisions over Biden's secretary of Labor? Young voters set turnout record, aiding Biden win MORE and even Anthony FauciAnthony FauciFauci urges Americans to conduct 'risk-benefit assessment' before holiday travel Sunday shows - Virus surge dominates ahead of fraught Thanksgiving holiday Fauci: 'We're in a very difficult situation at all levels' but 'help is on the way' MORE, which gave Biden a terrific comeback. “He’s a very confused guy. He thinks he’s running against someone else. He is running against Joe Biden.” 

Biden was most effective when he took control of the “I care about you” terrain and never gave an inch back. He spoke movingly about COVID’s human devastation and “missing loved ones” at the dinner table, while Trump insisted “we are rounding the turn,” 70,000 daily infections to the contrary. Biden described the Trump family separation policy as inhumane because “parents were ripped — their kids were ripped from their arms,” while Trump got into a blame game about who built the cages that he put the children in.   

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Biden stressed that, if elected, “I am an American president. I represent all of you. Whether you voted for me or against me,” while Trump blamed the blue states and cities for their problems.  

Trump doesn’t do compassion and empathy and, no surprise, he was most animated when talking about the stock market, 401k plans and the great economy of yesteryear. But in one of the worst years in American history, with a historically divisive president, it may make a difference that Joe Biden told Americans in the final presidential debate that he cares about all of them.       

Gregory J. Wallance, a writer in New York City, was a federal prosecutor during the Carter and Reagan administrations. He is the author of “America’s Soul in the Balance: The Holocaust, FDR’s State Department, and The Moral Disgrace of an American Aristocracy.” Follow him on Twitter @gregorywallance.